Dumbarnie Golf Links

Fairways from heaven

Editor Richard Bath visits the outstanding Dumbarnie Links in Fife, that rarest of things – a new golf course that lives up to the hype.

I TRAVELLED to Fife determined not to be swayed by the hype surrounding Dumbarnie, but came away as an ardent evangelist for this astonishingly good new course on the banks of the Firth of Forth. Over the past 30 years I think I’ve played virtually every new course in Scotland and, honestly, none is better than Dumbarnie and most are a pale shadow of Clive Clark’s masterpiece.

Sure, there are issues, not least with the infrastructure. Thanks to the pandemic, the barn-like clubhouse is still being built (but will be open sometime in September, they hope) so visitors have to make do with a motley collection of portacabins. But that’s it. Otherwise the place is practically perfect where it matters – out on the course.

The business model is disarmingly simple and based on the successfully road-tested offering at Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart. An American outfit, Arizona-based outfit OB Golf Sports Management, is running the course on land leased from an estate (in this case from the 5,000-acre estate owned by Lord Balniel) that is near to a cluster of decent course so that overseas visitors can base themselves nearby. So while Dumbarnie is on the coast below Lower Largo and directly across the Firth of Forth from Muirfield, sandwiched between Elie to the east and Lundin Links to the west, it’s a short drive to either Kingsbarns or any of the St Andrews courses.

As with Kingsbarns, there have been prodigious amounts of earth moved around the 350-acre Dumbarnie site to create the perfect ‘natural’ feel. There are also no members at the course, this is straight pay-and-play.

The real issue around Dumbarnie will soon be securing a tee-time, such is the tsunami of positive reports being generated by the golfing grapevine. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that (once again following the Kingsbarns/Castle Stuart model) the course has apparently been designed for 16 handicappers, so is accessible to virtually all golfers. That said, I have heard of several scratch golfers who have played off the back tees and sung its praises.

Above all, this links course is fair. It is a wonderful mix of risk and reward, where you are virtually forced to think your way around the course. For the conservative player with good course management, this is a dream, but for the more gung-ho it’s a course that rewards risk if you can hit it straight and long.

But even if you are a have-a-go hero, this is not a course which grinds the wayward into the dirt. If you’re wide of the fairway then you can invariably find your ball, it’s just that the lie may not be as great as you’d get from position A (although in true links fashion few of the fairways are completely flat), or you may have to go over water and/or sand. But even if you find yourself in a fairway bunker, it’s usually possible to do more than simply plonk your ball back on the fairway.

There are also a host of small details which are there to help golfers enjoy the day, such as the very accurate yardages to front and middle on the many drainage covers that pepper the course, a la Muirfield. There’s also a constant diet of variety, whether it be the mix of low and elevated tees, or a couple of doglegs thrown in for good measure. It’s this sort of golfer-friendly approach that wins admirers.

In many ways, this course reminded me of one of my favourite tracks, the Ailsa course at Turnberry. I’m a hacker who can shoot anywhere from 80 to 105 yet I finished the round with the same ball that I started with; my partner only lost one ball, and that’s when he went big and tried to shoot straight over water. I made a determined effort to play safe and ended up with a score that started with an eight, but there were some holes where I threw caution to the wind and was duly rewarded.

One of the things that hit me most forcibly about Dumbarnie was the sense that even halfway around this was a course that I already knew I’d like to play again. There’s so much to think about, so much to learn, that you could shave several shots off just by having a better appreciation of the lie of the land.

Nowhere is this more true than of the greens. I suspect that this is the one caveat that many golfers will have about this fine course, because the often quite startling gradients within the greens mean that if you’re in the wrong place it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere near the hole. Course management and the necessity to plot your course kick in, of course, but it was no surprise to find that the project director, Paul Kimber, was also responsible for the Castle Course – home of crazy putting – outside St Andrews.

Still, that’s a minor quibble to what was otherwise a rollickingly enjoyable 18 holes. It also helps that at the moment prices (which again ape those of Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart) are steep but not completely prohibitive, especially if you live in Scotland – with Fifers paying £90 for a round and Scottish residents having to cough up £115 each.

Sure it’s pricey, but in my humble estimation worth every penny.

Find out more at www.dumbarnielinks.com